President Destler’s welcome back address focuses on sustaining RIT’s momentum

Historic academic year features new semester calendar and a rise in national visibility

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A. Sue Weisler

RIT President Bill Destler welcomes the university community back to the 2013-2014 academic year. He believes the coming year “will be one of the most important in the history of RIT.”

Rochester Institute of Technology President Bill Destler urged the university community to collectively “sustain RIT’s momentum” in his annual welcome back address delivered today to students, faculty and staff.

Destler illustrated RIT’s national and global trajectory by citing examples of student and faculty achievements. With the largest freshman class in history and an enrollment topping 18,000 students for the first time, Destler said RIT is poised to become a leader in areas that are essential to the future economic success of the nation.

“We need to continue on our path to extend our geographic reach in our recruitment of the most talented students, staff, and faculty,” he said. “We must continue to grow our reputation as a place where innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship flourish.”

Destler added: “Very few individuals have the opportunity to participate in the kind of transformation that RIT is undergoing, and that transformation, if we continue to make the kind of progress we have been making, will be your legacy.”

Here is Destler’s address in its entirety:

“First of all, welcome back to the beginning of another academic year. I believe that this coming year will be one of the most important in the history of RIT, for reasons that you already are aware of. Our three-year journey to a semester calendar is finally at an end, and this year we will find out what works and what doesn’t, and we’ll learn what we didn’t think of at all. For all of the hard work by so many of you that has brought us to this point, I can only offer my heartfelt thanks. There will still be adjustments to be made once we gain experience with the new semester calendar, but I believe that we have laid a strong foundation that we can build upon in the years to come.

“And Genesis, our new student information system, is also up and running, and while this has been a challenging and often frustrating exercise for so many of you, we are likewise in your debt for your hard work and your patience. I don’t know if this project will ever be really finished, since complex information technology systems are almost always a work in progress, but again your hard work has put us in a position to ultimately benefit from this transition. So again, to all of you who contributed to this immense project, heartfelt thanks.

“Now usually I spend a good deal of my annual welcome back address reviewing our accomplishments during the past year, but this year I’ve decided to spend this brief period with you to talk on a more personal level about what’s on the horizon and what we need to do collectively to sustain RIT’s strong positive momentum.

“As you know, when I first joined the RIT family I established a number of very specific goals around student application numbers, retention and graduation rates, fundraising and alumni engagement, etc., etc., ad nauseum, and the initiation of new academic programs needed to fill out our curricular offerings. I did this because in many ways we were not performing in these areas at the level of the best private universities, and while these metrics do not by themselves define greatness, greatness cannot be achieved without competitive performance in these areas. After six years, I am pleased to say that RIT has made real progress in all of these areas, and as a result we are beginning to successfully compete for the best students, faculty, and staff.

“This is important because I believe that in the next year or two RIT will move from a national ranking in the “regional – North” category to the “national university” ranking category. We actually do not get to choose which category we are ranked in. As soon as we begin to regularly produce 20 Ph.D. degrees or more on an annual basis, and this year we will probably clear that threshold, our Carnegie classification will change and we will be ranked against the best colleges and universities in the nation and the world.

“Now many of you know that I think college rankings are more of a problem than a solution and that I think they are for the most part trying to force very different colleges and universities through a single evaluation filter. Why North Carolina A&T should be compared to Princeton is a mystery to me, but I know that we are going to be ranked by various print and online outlets whether we like it or not, so we should at least be prepared for this change. So let’s think about how we can turn this lemon into lemonade.

“And given all that, where do I think we should aspire to be ranked? I truly believe that if we continue on our present path, a ranking in the top 100 universities and colleges in the U.S. is a realistic goal. When you think about it, RIT wasn’t even called RIT until 1949. We didn’t offer bachelor degrees until 1954; we didn’t produce our first master’s degree until 1960; we didn’t occupy the current campus until 1968; and we didn’t grant our first Ph.D. degree until 1993. There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., and we could be ranked in the top 100??? I guess that really would be lemonade.

“What will it take to get there? We need to continue on our path to extend our geographic reach in our recruitment of the most talented students, staff, and faculty. We must continue to grow our reputation as a place where innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship flourish, we must continue our efforts to diversify our student, faculty, and staff populations and exploit NTID’s presence on our campus, we must continue to get RIT’s name out there across the country and around the world, we must continue to be seen as a place where students and parents get a real return on their investment, and we must continue to develop as a place where the best and brightest come to find their futures.

“Let me give you a few examples of both the progress we have made and the challenges in front of us:

Probably the one university with which we share the most undergraduate applicants is RPI. Twenty years ago, only a small fraction of RIT enrolled students would have even been offered admission to RPI. And twenty years ago, our chances of enrolling a student in competition with RPI were only about 1 out of 3. Last year, we won almost half of these competitions, and RPI was ranked 41st in the last U.S. News national university rankings.

“And we continue to attract an increasing number of truly exceptional students. One of this year’s freshmen is only 13 years old, and has already completed two associate degrees at community colleges. And one of last year’s freshman students, Adam Munich – well there’s a story to be told about Adam:

“Adam Munich has truly been a pain in the butt. In his first year at RIT, he got into trouble for cracking our IT security systems just to show us how easy they were to break into, and he took on several self-directed engineering projects in our various labs and shops by mostly breaking our rules and borrowing material and equipment wherever he could find them, sometimes without asking. One of his projects was an advanced Tesla coil, which he wanted to demonstrate at Imagine RIT, but, since it operated at 18kV, we told him he could not turn it on for safety reasons. I guess we showed him!

“Well, actually, he showed us. His Tesla coil won the Engibous Prize at the Texas Instruments Analog Design Contest and Summit international design competition grand prize, including a $10,000 cash award! The awards panel at TI was astonished at both the sophistication of his design and the innovation he showed in actually producing a working model. And they were even more astonished to learn that he was a freshman!

“Adam has quite honestly attributed a fair amount of his success to his quiet circumvention of our various rules and regulations. I think in the wake of this experience we need to be willing to ask ourselves whether we are getting in the way of talented students like Adam or recognizing their potential and finding ways to support them. As a result, I have asked Adam to work with us to help create a kind of student “skunk works” or “hackerspace” that would support student-directed projects more effectively, and one of my goals for this year is to create such a space while ensuring a reasonable level of accountability and safety.

“Frankly, as our students get better and better, these are the kinds of challenges we will confront in meeting their needs.

“As for national visibility, there are roles for all of us to play in this area. Last year, for example, our men’s lacrosse team went all the way to the Division III national title game. It is difficult to communicate the kind of pride that kind of achievement engenders in RIT alumni and friends. And this year, our men’s hockey team will play Michigan and our women’s hockey team will play Vermont during Brick City Homecoming weekend. These are both State flagship universities and national hockey powers, and they are coming to RIT.

“We will not meet our goal unless we have a faculty renowned for their scholarship, creative activity, and pedagogical innovations. One example is NTID Prof. Todd Pagano, who was named U.S. Professor of the year by the Carnegie Foundation, one of only three to be accorded this honor. And our various academic departments and programs are increasingly appearing in various national rankings both online and in print.

“Our organized student team activities, such as our wonderfully successful Formula SAE and Mini-Baja teams, can also communicate the excitement of the RIT experience. And last year a team of RIT students won the national cyber defense competition.

“These are just examples of how we are increasingly sending a national and international message about the emerging greatness of RIT. To reach our goal, we will need more of the same on a regular basis.

“And in the area of pedagogical leadership, we are being challenged as never before. Earlier this year, Georgia Tech announced an experimental MOOC-based on-line computer science Master’s degree for a total tuition cost of $8,000. Will this be the new model for higher education? And if so, how will we respond? Our new Innovative Learning Institute is organizing a variety of new on-line programs, but what the market will respond to in a positive way is still unknown, and we must remain both creative and flexible if we are to compete. And if we do not compete, we may be left at the starting gate.

“And while we take great pride in the 95% placement rate among our graduates, we must continue to control costs and maintain access to an RIT education for students of modest means. Although our students are getting better year-by-year, many are still the first in their families to attend college and many more require significant financial aid to attend. The days in which we could raise tuition and fees annually at 2-3 times the rate of inflation and expect to receive significant added revenues are over.

“One area in which there is an opportunity to control costs is in our health care benefit program. I have no intention of reducing our health care benefit package, but we are working with our alliance partner, the Rochester General Health System, to see if they can offer a tiered health care plan that would be equal in quality and lower in cost than our current offerings. If that is possible, the plan will be added as an option to our current offerings and any savings in the new plan would be shared with RIT employees. In addition, we are working with RGHS to open a walk-in clinic on our campus to serve students, faculty, and staff, and to serve as a training opportunity for our allied health care programs.

“Finally, I truly believe that RIT is poised to become a national leader in the education of a truly diverse student body. Recent support programs developed by our Multicultural Center for Academic Success for graduates of urban high schools, most of whom are African American or Latino, are already beginning to reduce the retention rate gap typically seen for such students compared to students from suburban backgrounds. And our Future Stewards Program for Native American students is becoming a national model, with retention and graduation rates for these students actually exceeding our campus average. Taken together with the remarkable success of NTID in moving deaf and hard-of-hearing students to meaningful careers, we have a chance to become a best-practice institution in an area absolutely essential to the future economic success of our nation.

“All this and much more lies in front of us, and I am confident that the same collective efforts that have brought us to this point will continue to carry us forward in the years ahead. I cannot promise you that the hard work is over, but I can promise you that it will be worth it. Very few individuals have the opportunity to participate in the kind of transformation that RIT is undergoing, and that transformation, if we continue to make the kind of progress we have been making, will be your legacy. Thanks so much for your support, your hard work, and your dedication to our students. I am so proud to have the honor of serving as your president.”